The federal government's changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit released Thursday.
One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government's minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.
Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.
Cafeterias regularly reported finding fruits and vegetables, which they are required to serve, ending up in trash cans. Although no studies have been completed, the government has found an increase in what it calls plate waste in some districts.
Despite the hiccups, school food authorities said they generally support the nutritional changes and think the menus are moving in the right direction.
"Although school lunch participation has declined, it is likely that participation will improve over time as students adjust to the lunch changes," GAO investigators said.
"Five of the districts we visited reported that, if the past is an indicator, participation will improve over time as students adjust to the new food items, and three noted the importance of nutrition education for students and parents to help make the transition to healthier school meals more successful," they said.
Neither the Agriculture Department, which wrote the rules, nor the office of first lady Michelle Obama, who has made school nutrition a priority, responded to messages seeking comment on the report.
GAO investigators said Agriculture Department officials generally agreed with the report's recommendations, though the two sides disagreed on whether the department is able to properly monitor whether districts are complying with the rules.
Lunch trays are required to have at least a half-cup of fruits or vegetables, and milk must contain no more than 1 percent fat. The rules also ban trans fats and set higher minimum calorie levels for each student meal.
After the standards went into effect in the 2012-13 school year, the GAO said, the number of students buying school lunches — which had been on a steady increase — dropped by a total of 1.2 million students.
GAO investigators talked with students and found that some ended up buying food from vending machines or from a la carte lines in the cafeteria, or went off campus to eat.
One of the school districts that investigators analyzed said it stopped allowing students to eat off campus.
"With a closed campus policy, students are required to stay on the school campus during the lunch period, which increases the likelihood that they will participate in the school lunch program," investigators concluded.
GAO investigators said 321 school districts dropped out of the school lunch program altogether in the previous year, and many did so to avoid the mandates.
"Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat," Superintendent Gary Lewis in Catlin, Ill., told The Associated Press last year. "So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."
Investigators said schools reported a number of problems implementing the standards. Some districts said switching from canned to fresh produce meant they had to have more frequent shipments — and that meant an increased likelihood of workplace injuries because of extra unloading and lifting.
"Staff in one [school food authority] noted that the increased amount of time and effort to prepare fruits and vegetables also led to morale issues when staff saw students throw the fruits and vegetables in the trash," the investigators said.
Some schools also said they had to buy spoons and ladles to adjust to the new portion sizes.
The GAO said the eight districts it visited were Caddo Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, Carlisle Area School District in Pennsylvania, Chicago Public Schools, Coeur d'Alene School District in Idaho, Irving Independent School District in Texas, Mukwonago Area School District in Wisconsin, Spokane Public Schools in Washington, and Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
The report didn't specify which district added pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet calorie guidelines.
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